Newt Gingrich's win in South Carolina opened up the Republican primaries, making Florida a potential kingmaker. (Photo by Gage Skidmore.)

By Ralph De La Cruz
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Buckle up, Florida. After tour stops in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, the 2012 Republican Presidential Primary and Wild West Show is coming to a town near you.

The Republican Party of Florida accepted all sorts of penalties (loss of delegates and poorer floor position at the national convention in Tampa, plus worse hotel rooms) to move the date of the Florida primary up to January 31. That date assured the state would be alone in the national spotlight.

Republican leaders got their wish, though it might feel more like we’ve moved into the middle of the crosshairs than the spotlight.

Prepare to be inundated with fliers, letters, robo-calls, billboards, sky-writing planes, e-mails, newspaper missives and, most definitely, TV ads over the next eight days. Think of it the way you might see the winter tourist season: We can sure use the money, but not the aggravation.

And this year there’s sure to be record amounts of both. That’s because two years and two days ago, a deeply divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that campaign contributions are an expression of free speech. The Citizens United decision effectively voided most restrictions on campaign contributions.

The effect has been predictable.

“There are probably fewer than 100 people who are fueling 90 percent of this outside money right now,” David Donnelly, national campaigns director at the Public Campaign Action Fund, told the Washington Post.

Super PACs are political action committees on steroids. They are the Frankensteinian offspring of Citizens United — fundraising groups with little or no limits. And their presence has been overwhelming so far in the first three Republican primaries. That trend is expected to continue in the Sunshine State. Of the $12.5 million spent in Iowa, just one-third was by the campaigns themselves. According to ProPublica, at least 283 super PACs have been registered since the Citizens United decision. And congratulations to Floridian Josue Larose, who alone has registered 60 — apparently for no reason at all.

At first, after relatively light spending early in Iowa and New Hampshire, it seemed the Citizens United effect may have been overestimated.

But late spending came in from the super PACs. And by the end of the contests, campaigns had taken up all available commercial time on TV. And when the sniping got really serious in the last half of the South Carolina primary, so did the spending. In all three contests, super PACs outspent the regular campaigns. In South Carolina, the margin was two-to-one.

And now that Newt Gingrich steamrolled frontrunner Mitt Romney in South Carolina, truly opening up the nomination, Florida is expected to be a Republican kingmaker. Translation: no holding back financially.

“They’re going to go for broke in Florida, because Florida is such a symbol of Republican strength,” University of South Florida political science professor Susan MacManus told the Orlando Sentinel. “The Republicans know if you don’t win in Florida, you don’t win the White House.”

Just the Romney campaign and its associated super PACs have spent $7.3 million in Florida — more than half what was spent by everyone in South Carolina — before the race even got here.

So expect a heaping helping of Mitt and Newt on TV — particularly if you live along the I-4 corridor, home to 45 percent of the state’s Republicans. Empty the trash and recycling in preparation for the armfuls of unread campaign “literature” that will soon make its way there. And just keep repeating: it’s good for the economy.

Although keep in mind that the real money isn’t being made locally. A lot of it — surprise — goes to overseas interests.

And if you’re interested in keeping score in the money game, spend some time at OpenSecrets. They’ve got the goods.

Enjoy the show.